What my Twitter sources told me really happened to Michael Brown

Twitter’s influence as a platform for sharing political stories is on the rise. Just compare coverage of the Michael Brown shooting to that of Trayvon Martin’s two years earlier. What's not clear is how this coverage is affecting attitudes toward US politics.

We are in a revolutionary period when it comes to the dissemination of news in this nation. A recent Pew Research Center survey finds that, as of this past January, fully 74% of Americans use social networking sites and, among online adults, almost 20% are on Twitter, an increase in Twitter use of 5% in two years. This is still a relatively small number of Twitter users compared to those who get their news through other means, but the increase suggests that Twitter’s influence as a platform for gathering and sharing political stories is on the rise. This is evident, for example, when comparing Pew’s estimate of the Twitter coverage of the Michael Brown shooting to that of Trayvon Martin’s two years earlier.

Political scientists are just beginning to assess how the growing use of Twitter and related social media platforms are affecting the coverage of and attitudes toward American politics. In that spirit, I’ve undertaken a comprehensive survey of my own Twitter feed regarding what actually happened in the Michael Brown shooting (with no pretense that my Twitter sources represent a truly random sample of the Twitterverse more generally). Here’s what I’ve been able to discern regarding this tragic event:

1. Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, unnecessarily provoked an altercation with Michael Brown, who is black, by ordering him to get off the street and onto the sidewalk. Michael Brown, who is black, unnecessarily provoked an altercation with Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, by initially refusing to respond to Wilson’s direction to get on the sidewalk and stop blocking street traffic.

2. Wilson knew, via a report on the police scanner, that someone had robbed a nearby convenience store just minutes earlier, and he saw that Brown was carrying cigars, which the scanner report indicated was one of the items stolen. Wilson had no idea that Brown had allegedly stolen some cigars and, even if he did, that does not excuse Wilson’s use of excessive force.

3. The police decision to release video of the robbery was needlessly incendiary and designed to turn public opinion against Brown. The police reluctantly released the video due to multiple media requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and in the goal of full transparency.

4. When Wilson tried to get out of his cruiser to question Brown, the 6-foot-4, 292 pound suspect pushed him back into the car, and then punched Wilson. In the ensuing struggle, Wilson’s gun went off, at which point Brown broke free and tried to escape arrest. Office Wilson, irked with Brown’s slow response to his directive, backed his cruiser alongside Brown. Then, without provocation, he reached out through the cruiser window and grabbed Brown by the throat, pulling him toward the cruiser, prompting Brown to struggle to break free. When Brown did, Wilson, while still in his cruiser, shot at Brown once.

5. After the initial shot (or shots), Brown turned around and raised his hands to surrender, but was shot multiple times by Wilson, who had chased after Brown, from a distance of about 7 feet. Wilson, pursuant to standard procedure, pursued Brown and his friend, ordering them to freeze. When they turned around, Brown ran at Wilson, prompting the officer to shoot him in self-defense from a distance of 2-3 feet.

6. Wilson reportedly has severe facial bruises consistent with a struggle. Preliminary autopsy results on Brown show no sign of a struggle.

7. In a clear sign of excessive force, Brown was shot six times, including two shots to the head, despite the fact that he was unarmed and trying to surrender. Consistent with police training, Wilson – fearing he was in imminent danger – used deadly force to protect himself.

8. Ferguson and St. Louis police faced a near impossible task of both respecting the right of demonstrators to peaceably protest while at the same time cracking down on those looters and others who were explicitly trying to provoke a police response. The subsequent mishandling by law enforcement of largely peaceful protests, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, exacerbated an already tense situation, and showed complete incompetence on the part of St Louis and Ferguson police.

9. Media coverage, particularly via Twitter, has helped pressure law officials to release information they otherwise would have concealed and generally made it harder for them to whitewash a clear violation of Brown’s civil rights. Media coverage, particularly via Twitter, has inflamed an already unstable situation by providing incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information, and by precipitating a rush to judgment. It will be almost impossible for Wilson to get a fair hearing.

10. President Obama’s decision to wait until all the facts are in before visiting Ferguson, or commenting on the case in detail, epitomizes the type of calm, restrained leadership we expect from our president. President Obama’s unwillingness to talk about the racial implications of the Brown shooting, never mind visit Ferguson, is a betrayal of everything we expect from the first black President.

11. Law enforcement should resist a rush to judgment, and instead take however long is necessary to fully assess the evidence before deciding whether to prosecute Wilson. The longer law enforcement waits to indict Wilson and bring him to trial, the more volatile the situation in Ferguson will become.

12. Unfortunately, a white cop shooting an unarmed black man is an all-too-common occurrence in this country, and it is evidence of the systemic racism that continues to cloud race relations. The immediate racialization of the Brown shooting and the concomitant rush to judgment both exaggerates the impact of race as a causal factor in the shooting, and needlessly undermines race relations in this country.

13. Finally (and here I am anticipating the Twitter reaction to this post!), by trying to treat these dueling narratives as equally (in)valid, this post is another example of the false equivalency that characterizes reporting on the Brown shooting, when it is quite clear that one side of the story is true, and the other almost wholly made up.

And that’s the truth about what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, based on what I’ve read on Twitter.

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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